I think that any reasonable guide understands the value of, and is able to express the emphatic power of utilizing a full spectrum of sensory props to enhance a guest’s safari experience.
Up until yesterday I was of the opinion that, although backed up solidly by the other senses, a wildlife experience was primarily a visual one.
Throughout my career as a field guide I have looked after people with many physical disabilities that have challenged what the “normal” exposure may be, and have had enormous admiration for the individuals and how they overcome these challenges. I have recently been afforded the great pleasure of looking after a blind man on Safari over the period of two days.
Blindness, in my opinion, must be one of the most devastating and debilitating of disabilities, but I learnt that Nature is powerful enough to overcome even this in Her ability to deeply touch individuals. It was a hugely humbling experience indeed!!
I was really quite unsure how I was going to manage the safari experience with a blind person on my vehicle, and how to try and portray wildlife with the same degree of enormity that is so simple visually. But as it transpired, I needn’t have been even remotely concerned, as Nature would divulge Herself in a cacophony of sounds and non-visual prompts that left me bewildered.
We began by crossing the Sand River, an aural experience in itself, as the land rover waded through the crossing and the water cascaded around us and the tyres crunched over the rocky bed. Switching off the vehicle to listen to the soothing current – suddenly a large Nile Monitor Lizard scrambled from a rock where it had been sunning itself, its long, sharp claws grinding against the rock as they sought purchase; its gravelly belly and tail scales rasped across the surface portraying its size and serpentine swiftness. Had I heard this before?
Next we encountered a lone buffalo bull in the reed beds on the opposite side of the river – this I was certain was to be a “sighting” that would be only for the benefit of the sighted as there was little I could do to try and improve it for my blind guest. Just as I was about to start the vehicle (and get the diesel engine running, that was to become such an intrusive noise throughout the experience!!) this great General steered towards the water’s edge and proceeded to wade out into the river and across to the northern bank! Quite audibly depicting his huge bulk as he laboriously heaved himself, splashing and sloshing, across the River.
It was then the turn of the most silent and elusive of all, the leopard. Having undertaken some rather hairy off-road maneuvering, and navigating angles that gave the feeling that the vehicle may roll over at any moment! (Although this was far from the critical levels that can be safely negotiated, it was an experience in itself.) We came upon a sighting of a female leopard with a young impala kill deep within the sprawling branches of a river bushwillow. The visibility for the rest of us was fairly average, but she was feeding on the carcass as we located her. The ripping of flesh and skin and the cracking of bones, coupled with the olfactory element that accompanies sightings such as these, gave more than enough stimuli for the mind to paint a picture.
I was really starting to enjoy this. Already there was a relaxed and absorptive atmosphere amongst all on the vehicle and on we went.
The cards continued to fall perfectly as we came across a young male cheetah lying in fairly long grass. Again it began as a mediocre scene with little potential of improving for any of us, being especially enigmatic and challenging to try and describe this lithe feline who is significantly more famous for its high-speed chases than its vocal repertoire or raucousness. Just then the cheetah stood up and walked straight to a tree a few metres from us and proceeded to reach up the trunk and claw the bark audibly (with the very same partially-sheathed claws that I had described only seconds prior). This was followed by a flurry of circular sprints in the fallen leaf-litter of the deciduous woodland that it had been lying in, which appeared to be completely for show, and provided another amazing display of aural tangibility.
It was then the turn of my favorites, the elephants; I would surely get some audio from these giants and felt quietly confident as I approached a herd that was just finishing a drink at a large waterpoint. “Elephants!” I announced somewhat unnecessarily as two fabulous bulls jousted one another mere metres away; clattering ivory, slapping trunks and ears, growling and bellowing, pushing and shoving through bushes which tore at their tough hide. Calves squealed in the background, others slurped audibly at the cool water and sprayed trunk-fulls over their bodies in a noisy, drenching shower. Then sand was kicked loose and hovered up with the trunk and blown with great exhalations across their sides.
Trunks wound around thorny acacia branches and slowly and purposefully stripped along the length of the branch to de-nature the lignified thorns, creating an almost “hissing” sound. Clatter again as ivory collided and deep, guttural rumblings that reverberated around us…..
Elephants, they certainly know how to come to the party!!
I disembarked the vehicle with my blind guest so that he could get a better cognizance of this experience away from the relative sanctuary of the land rover. I too, closed my eyes to try and share in his perception, albeit from a different level. His grip was firm on my arm but not with fear, it was rigid with the power of the experience, formulating images and harnessing the sounds and smells.
Aromatic herbs released their scents as they were trampled beneath the great padded feet, and the dull thuds of dung bolus as they hit the ground emanating rich animal scents, not unpleasant.
We could have stayed all day with this group, sight or no sight it was a very special scene, but the pressures of a short safari determined that we continue to explore further.
A pride of 11 lions had dispossessed a leopard of its kill and now lay lazily at the base of a large Marula Tree whilst the disgruntled leopard wiled away the time high up in the branches above them, offering disapproving looks down to his fat relatives below. Visually this was an extraordinary scene. All the other creatures had performed so well to announce themselves to my blind guest. Rather dreamily I wished that one of the lions would stand up and unleash a mighty roar – the sound so encapsulating and powerful. But deep down I really expected the lions to fail me, and I was spot on!! There were one or two grunts and a belch as they lazily flopped from one side of a fully-loaded belly to the other. The busy and excited narrative on the vehicle would have to suffice in this instance.
Hippos wheeze-honking; impala snorting in alarm and uttering their nasal bellowing in remembrance of the rut, rhino and herds of buffalo tore at tussocks of grass within touching distance, their heavy scents permeating the air around us. We kicked elephant dung balls and felt the giant circumference of the footprint of a great bull. We felt the length and rigidity of the scented-pod acacia thorns.
Once all was done out in the field it was time to tie up all the loose ends – décor around the lodge! Delicate and informative fingers roamed over the huge ostrich eggs and spiraled kudu horns. The skulls of giraffe, rhino and hippo; the pitted bone, occluded canines and over-sized incisors. His face was a picture of amazement as he pieced together the final elements of his minds’ image.
Nature had been on show, but as I recollect the many hundreds of game drives I have taken, I cannot recall any being so loaded with non-visual stimuli, or maybe my vision had simply deafened me to it.
Do not underestimate the sounds, the smells and the textures.